Sunday, 23 March 2008

Arthur Ransome's Politics

TarBoard, is a very lively discussion board dedicated to Arthur Ransome and his works. Whenever Arthur Ransome's politics have been discussed a consensus quickly arises supporting the view that whatever AR's politics may have been in his youth - and whatever lingering socialist sympathies AR may have retained throughout the rest of his life - the Swallows and Amazon series is completely apolitical. Those arguing the contrary are not taken very seriously.

The S&A series books have been on the nursery bookshelves of quite a few remarkable people such as: Clare Francis, Ellen MacArthur, Philip Pullman, Paul Foot and Norman Willis. Quite a few of his famous readers have admitted that they found the books inspirational. Perhaps part of inspiration is in the way Ransome teaches his youthful readers to think for themselves and not take everything on face value regardless of the source. Character's like forceful Nancy Blackett, Captain of the Amazon Pirates, the respectable Doctor's son Tom Dudgeon, or the quiet and literary minded Dorothea Callum, manage to outwit adults and the 'authorities' by a high degree of intelligence and a certain degree of deception. Of course, this plot element is gently understated or Ransome's books would never have had the enormous sales that they enjoyed throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in the days when parents chose what books to buy their children. In Swallowdale the enemy is fearsome Great Aunt, Coot Club the adversaries are the Hulaballos who endanger a coot and her nest, and in Great Northern? the villain is a rich and unscrupulous egg collector.

As other posts on If Not Duffers... have shown, it is necessary to dig deep when trying to solve the mystery of the model Beckfoot and the original Amazons. Perhaps one has to dig even deeper still to understand what political lessons Ransome was trying to implant in the minds of his young readers! An excellent starting point is Ransome the Socialist, Duncan Hall's latest post in his own AR blog which coincidentally is also called Great Northern?.

Other useful resources on AR's politics -
Arthur Ransome in Revolutionary Russia
- by Paul Foot
The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome - The Sharp Side blog


Duncan Hall said...

I would probably begin from a starting point of suggesting that Ransome was not really trying to 'implant' political lessons in anybody's mind. He wrote stories that he himself would enjoy reading and he had plenty of theories and ideas about story-telling and how to construct a story that he wrote about in some detail. Of course, his stories are absolutely brim full of his own interests and values - and, in an entirely non-political way - he is something of an evangelist for both: his letters are full of him telling people what books to read, how to do black-and-white illustrations, specific points about sailing or fishing; his articles are clear on which flies to use for a particular fish, etc. The books are full of sailing, there's quite a lot of fishing, there's the love affair with landscapes that he loved and pursuits that he loved. And then there are certain values - what childhood should be like, justice and fairness, being protective of nature, an interest in traditional industry (charcoal burning) and pursuits (hound trailing), etc. Ransome could easily have arrived at all his rather universal values without having a political view. But I think you can just detect a bit of the politics peeking through, particularly in terms of which values become paramount and which characters are portrayed most sympathetically.

Anonymous said...

His political leanings and his interest in Russia never did sit too well in later decades. however, we love him for all that. I'm a member of TARS in Australia, and armed with the books advertised on this page by Roger Wardale etc am heading off to the Lake District June 1 for a glorious few days in his footsteps. If it interests you, I'm keeping a blog at / of the trip and will put up some video of the trip on youtube. cheers.

Dominic Rivron said...

To someone who only knows the books and has seen photos of the older Ransome, he so fits into a stereotype of a gentleman writer of improving fiction for young people that most people take its accuracy for granted. Prototypes -e.g., Kipling, Buchan, WE Johns, et al- abound. His appearance, his subject matter and many of his interests are very “establishment” at first glance. He so looks the part that he must have turned into it!
It is almost like the way a magician attracts our attention to what he wants us to see, while distracting us from what is really happening. But I don't think it was a deliberate act – it just happens like that because the stereotype is so strong.
However, the sympathetic adult role models in the books, the “friendly natives” are anything but conventional. Superficially, yes: middle-class professionals who are obviously quite well-off. But they all have hidden depths which lead them to conspire with the children who are seeking to remap all the world that is known to them. I could go on (and do, on my own blog). It's more than a game of let's pretend. The post-imperialist world is turned on its head: rather than the “uncivilised” it's those who take civilisation at face value and can't see beyond it who are the “natives” in these stories.
My favourite photo of Ransome is one in which he look young, idealistic, bright-eyed and a bit dishevelled!